Plenary Discussion – Union-Party Relationships


Presentation Slides

Menaha Kandasamy, Ceylon Red Flag Union, Sri Lanka

Fatima Aguado, Workers’ Commissions, (CC.OO), Spain


Union party relationships – “stay together for the children or get a divorce?’’

8th July, 2015 / Kat Dyer / guest blogger (PCS)

On Wednesday afternoon, the GLI International Summer School addressed the often hotly debated topic of union and party relationships – if, how and when should trade unions affiliate to political parties.

“what counts as a truly independent union?”

Bert Schouwenburg  [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Bert Schouwenburg
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
The discussion brought up questions including “what is the worldwide experience of union/political party affiliations?”, “does representative democracy really empower unions?” and, “what counts as a truly independent union? And is this desirable?” Before the plenary session began, Summer School participants were split into four groups to discuss these questions and share experiences and insights from their own countries.

In one discussion group, a participant from France commented that affiliation to political parties was uncommon in his country. In contrast to this, participants from Sweden and the UK expressed their shared disillusion and anger towards their own union-supported Social Democratic/Labour parties which have torn away from representing the interests of the workers and shamelessly promoted a neoliberal agenda.

Dan Gallin (GLI Geneva) responded to these comments by posing a further question: ‘‘The essence of the problem is that we have historical political allies and now we have problems with these allies. The question is now why this has this come about and what do we do about it?’’

Dan’s question triggered a number of responses, which broadly fell into three categories: those supporting political affiliation, those against and those who don’t fit into either category.

Those who supported union affiliation to political parties stressed the need for unions to have representation at the political party level in order to effectively influence governments and change laws. These proponents of “marriage” argued that if political affiliation is eschewed, trade unions risk becoming a-political.

“we can’t keep embalming the corpses of the political parties with trade union money.”

Countering this line of thought, Khalid Mahmood (LEF) argued that trade unions should be independent, saying that, “trade unions should have their own politics, they should be able to oppose any policy of the government irrespective of what political party is in power”. Khalid’s position was a popular one, and other participants voiced their frustration with the many political parties that take union money, but do not advocate for policies that support workers’ interests.

Baba Aye from the Nigerian Medical and Health workers union agreed with these “divorcees”. Drawing on experience from his own union, Baba provocatively argued that, “rupture is close, we can’t keep embalming the corpses of the political parties with trade union money.”

Fatima Aguado [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Fatima Aguado
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Martin Gemzel from War on Want offered a bridging view between the marriage camp and the divorcees. He stated that, “the problem with building power and building political allies means that ultimately this results in compromise. Why not build your own party?…when trade unionists make up political party membership they can take over the party. Let’s take control of our parties.”

Rebecka Barjosef from LO Sweden supported this position, arguing that, “we should stand up for what we believe in and redefine our political parties…we need to stop protecting the corrupt within our own parties’’.

Following a lively group discussion session, Bert Schouwenburg from the GMB union in the UK, Menaha Kandasamy from the from the Ceylon Red Flag Union in Sri Lanka and Fatima Aguado from the Workers’ Commissions (CC.OO) in Spain gave presentations on the state of union-party relationships in their respective countries.

Bert began by giving an overview of the longstanding historical relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party in the UK. He argued that whilst the Labour Party was once  the “political wing” of the trade union movement, this is clearly no longer the case.

“trade unions are like Arsenal football club on a bad day”

Menaha shared her experiences of attempting to change the male/older-generation dominated Sri Lankan Communist Party “from within”. Fatima gave an insightful analysis on the rise of the political party Podemos in Spain and highlighted its difficult relationship with established trade unions, such as her own, which the party has dismissed as being part of the old establishment or “la casta”.

Menaha Kandasamy [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Menaha Kandasamy
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Chris Baugh from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in the UK summarized the discussion with a football analogy: “trade unions are like Arsenal football club on a bad day, messing around in midfield and never taking a shot. The question for trade unionists and socialists in any country is how do we create a working class party that advances our interests? Trade unions should be an independent expression of working class power. We have an important role in creating influence over political parties in a working class radical direction.”

Despite considerable differences in opinion, the firm believers in marriage, those seeking change and compromise and those now reaching for divorce papers did all agree on one important message: we as trade unionists need to actively create more space within our movement, both internationally and within our own countries, to debate the political agency and representation of trade unions.

Leave a Reply